The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

STEM Enrichment Camp

My school district started holding a two-week summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) enrichment camp last year. Sometime in early May, I got an email from the camp coordinator, letting all the district staff know the camp would be returning and looking to see if anyone would be interested in teaching. My principal is also the camp principal, and she encouraged me to participate.

I went to the information meeting, ate delicious cookies (always a good way to get teachers to come to a meeting), and wrote up a proposed class: Building Bridges.

My plan was for the students to read about bridges, look at bridges, watch videos about bridges, plan and design bridges, and then build bridges using different materials. I also found some really cool iPad apps. (My two favourites are the Bridge Constructor Playground and Fat Birds.)

Camp started a week ago Monday and went until Thursday. Then we had a three-day weekend and came back this week. I had two classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The students were entering third through fifth grades. I had 9 students in my first class and 11 in my second. There were two students from my class this past year who participated. I wanted the class to be an organic experience, with the students’ interests guiding what we did as we moved forward from day to day. Of course, I had a plan laid out for the two weeks, but I made lots of room for flexibility.

We started Monday with the students getting together in small groups to make posters about everything they knew about bridges. Then I had them read an information text about building bridges. They learned about three types of bridges: arch, cantilever, and suspension. They then got to go back and add to their posters. We wrapped up the first day with drawing our first bridges. I was interested to see what the students would come up with on their own. These first designs were very primitive.

On Tuesday, the students worked in small groups to build a bridge using 20 straws and masking tape. The bridge had to cross a ten-inch gap and hold a certain weight. (I used a book I was reading and my electric pencil sharpener.) There were six different bridges designed between the two classes, and all six designs were different! After planning, designing, building, and testing the bridges, I allowed the students to use the iPads we had available to use the bridge apps. They were all really excited to use the iPads and they loved the games!

Wednesday was another bridge-building challenge. The students were given 10 three-by-five index cards and some school glue as their materials. Once again, they had to cross a ten-inch span. This time, though, we did a competition to see which bridge could hold the most weight. My mother-in-law came in to help facilitate this activity, which she did with her fifth graders a few years ago. Using two cups tied together with a string, and then draping them over the bridges, we would place washers into the cups until the bridges fell. It takes a long time for glue to dry, though, so the students had most of the class time to work on their bridges then we set them aside so they could dry. Then they were able to use the iPads again until class was over.

Thursday was much different from the rest of the week. The index card bridges were still drying, and I wanted us to get out of the classroom for more than just a 30-minute physical activity period. I decided to have my classes walk down to Meadowbrook Park and follow the walking path around the park to look at some of the bridges out there. The total trip was 4.5 miles, which I got to do twice! The students were thoroughly worn out, but they had a great time at the park.

After the weekend, we reconvened on Monday and continued our bridge exploration. My morning class watched a movie about the so-called Super Bridge in Alton, Illinois, that introduced a new style of bridge: the cable-stay bridge. My afternoon class watched two episodes of Extreme Engineering to learn more about how bridges are designed. My mother-in-law came back before lunch to help test the index card bridges, and then stayed for right after lunch so my afternoon class could also test bridges.

Tuesday saw the beginning of the major culminating project for the camp: building a balsa wood bridge that could cross a twelve-inch span. The students planned, designed, then began cutting and gluing. We quickly learned that the glue made a huge mess, but it wasn’t that hard to clean up. This took up the entire class period.

On Wednesday, we finished building balsa wood bridges. We also watched another movie, this time about the construction of Japan’s Akashi-Kaikyo suspension bridge, which, at 2 1/2 miles, is the longest bridge in the world. The students also got to use the iPads again as they tried to earn all of the medals and stars on the games.

We wrapped up the camp today. The students shared what they learned, and then got together with their original groups to update their bridge posters. We watched one final video, this one about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Then we used the iPads one last time. At 3:00, family and friends were invited to come in and see what the students had done. They got to look at all of the bridges that were build over the two weeks, read the posters, and listen to their children eagerly talk about bridges.

And then we were done! I took lots of pictures this week. Rather than clog up this post with pictures, I decided to put all of them on a Google+ album. You can find them here. Please note, I have not identified any of the students or their family members in any of the pictures. Feel free to download the pictures for personal use!

This was my first time teaching an enrichment class like this, and I think it went really well. My students all learned something about bridges, learned how to solve problems, and improved the cooperative learning skills. I am hoping the camp will return next year so I can teach another STEM class!


3 responses

  1. Nice Job, Wish you all the Best. will

    June 15, 2013 at 6:59 am

  2. Tom

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the Boy Scouts have launched an initiative to include STEM in their programs (from Cub Scout all the way through Venturing). Might be something to look into w/ your pack?

    June 27, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    • I think have heard rumours of it. I’ll definitely look into the specifics!

      June 27, 2013 at 5:23 pm

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